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The Buffalo of Yesteryear: In 1860, awed by the 'awful majesty' of Niagara Falls

In Buffalo’s early history, the city was actually a part of Niagara County.

Buffalo was formed as a town in 1810 and incorporated as a village in 1813, but it wasn’t until April of 1821 that Erie County was carved out of Niagara County, according to the book “Historical and Statistical Gazetteer of New York State.” (Buffalo later incorporated as a city in 1832.)

In the book – a comprehensive, almanac-like look at each county in New York that was written in 1860 – author J.H. French departs from his dry, detached, scientific and encyclopedic prose to marvel at the jewel of Niagara County, Niagara Falls:

The immense body of water in Niagara gives to the falls, and to the rapids both above and below, a grandeur scarcely equaled by any other of nature’s works. Here one of the largest rivers in the world, forming the outlet of the great internal fresh water seas of North America, plunges down the shelving rapids and leaps into the profound chasm below, and then whirls and struggles with an apparently almost irresistible force in its rocky channel for 7 mi., and at last emerges from its mountain barrier and spreads out into the calm and peaceful waters of Ontario. Scenes of surpassing sublimity and grandeur open upon the view at every point, and pilgrims from every part of the world flock hither to offer their devotions at one of the great shrines of universal nature.

Time-travelers who arrive at Niagara Falls in 1860, before the time of hydroelectric power-generating stations, would find a different place than the casino-laden tourist destination Western New Yorkers know today. But they would notice one familiar business: the Maid of the Mist, which French mentioned in his chapter on Niagara County.

The “Maid of the Mist,” a small steamer, makes trips upon the river from her dock, a little above Suspension Bridge, into the foam and mist just below the Canadian Fall. The awful majesty of this cataract is seen to great advantage in the winter season, when the spray settling upon all objects in the vicinity covers them with a glittering crust of ice.

Taking stock of the rest of the county, French named and described Niagara County’s towns. The roster of towns remains the same today, but there were some other municipal differences in 1860: North Tonawanda was not yet a city (the area was simply part of the Town of Wheatfield), and French makes no mention of the Village of Barker (in the Town of Somerset), which wasn’t incorporated until 1908.

The Buffalo of Yesteryear: Chictawauga, Scajaquady and the 'morass' that was Buffalo

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